A bill that would extend the period of time during which child victims of sexual abuse could file claims against their abusers stalled Tuesday night, when the formal legislative session ended with unresolved differences between House and Senate versions and concerns about the bill’s constitutionality.
But advocates say they remain optimistic that a compromise can be forged in a conference committee in the coming weeks. Legislation can still be approved after formal sessions end, as long as no member raises an objection to the measure.
“They’ll have the time to do it and do it right, so we don’t have any unintended consequences,” said Carmen Durso, an attorney who represents victims of sexual abuse. “I believe they’re going to make a sincere effort to get this done. This is the most progress we’ve ever made in 10 years. So I’m encouraged.”
The measure would end the strict statute of limitations that now requires child victims of sexual abuse to file claims before they turn 21. The House version would extend that deadline to 27 years after a victim turns 16, or until the age of 43. That would be consistent with the statute of limitation for filing criminal charges, which was extended in 2006 after complaints by prosecutors who were unable to bring old cases against Catholic priests.
The bill also opens up a one-year window for a victim of any age to file a civil claim of abuse, no matter how old. But on Tuesday night, the Senate amended the House version to remove that one-year provision, meaning there would be no opportunity for some victims to file claims on older cases. The Senate legal counsel had raised concerns that the bill could be construed as unconstitutional.
“The bottom line is, this needs some more work, and we’re going to give it some more work,” said state Senator William N. Brownsberger, who sponsored the Senate amendment. “We can have a look-back period, but we can set the boundaries in a way that will not raise a lot of legal confusion.”
But Marci A. Hamilton, a constitutional law scholar working to end the statutes of limitations on child sex abuse claims in states across the country, said the argument of unconstitutionality is often raised by the Catholic church.
“There is no question that it’s constitutional in Massachusetts,” she said. “I explained this to several different members of the Senate. So that is not a criticism that can be taken seriously. What’s really going on is, at some level, politics.”
Nonetheless, she said, she is optimistic that the measure was not killed but sent to a conference committee. “To me, that indicates that senators are legitimately behind it, and so it does have a good shot at passage,” she said.
A spokesman for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference did not return calls for comment but issued a statement noting the efforts that the church has made to develop outreach programs for survivors, to be vigilant in reporting claims, to work with law enforcement to resolve cases, and to implement education and child-safety programs involving hundreds of thousands of children and adults.
“The four Dioceses of Massachusetts acknowledge the suffering of all survivors who have experienced sexual abuse as a minor, and remain committed to assuring the safety of children in the future,” the conference said. “As a society we must work together responsibly and collaboratively to root out child abuse from our communities, homes, schools, places of worship, and elsewhere.”
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo told the State House News service early Wednesday that a conference committee would try to iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions and pass the measure during an informal session in the coming months.
“That’s something we’re both going to be working on, and hopefully we’re going to be able to get that done in an informal session, although that may be a little bit difficult,” DeLeo said. “I think that at the very least, strides that we’ve made this session, if we can’t get it done this session, will serve us well next session as a basis for moving ahead.”
Advocates credited increasing awareness about the ongoing threat of institutional coverups of abuse for driving legislators’ interest. Four other states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York — are also now considering extending their statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse civil claims, and four more already have.
“The tide is turning remarkably. The difference is that the Catholic Conference, the bishops, have lost so much footing,” Hamilton said. She pointed to former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s conviction on sexual abuse charges and Philadelphia’s Monsignor William J. Lynn’s conviction for covering up sexual abuse by priests, as shifting the public consciousness of institutional coverups of child sexual abuse.
“Arguments from the bishop now sound hollow because they typically say it’s anti-Catholic animus that motivates legislation and the suits,” Hamilton said. “And we all know now that large institutions cover up sex abuse. It’s got nothing to do with religion. It has to do with children.”